This is an excerpt of The Delusion of Inclusion:
The invitation seemed normal enough to Wood Mercer. He, Dillon, and three of the other captains on the football team were going to engage in a little harmless hazing. Three smart-mouth sophomores, who’d protested to the coaches about their lack of playing time, were being held against their will behind the gymnasium. It was a tradition; something most seniors on the team had experienced when they were wise-cracking underclassmen.
Wood and Dillon kept glancing at the huge clock that hung over the entrance to the locker room. It read 4:47. The head coach usually left for the day around 5:00 so the two boys loitered in the meeting room until they were sure he was gone. When the coast was clear the mischievous teens grabbed the items they needed to carry out their mission. Duct tape was needed to keep the underclassmen bound. A few bars of soap would be shoved into their mouths to muffle screams while the captains peppered them with enough body blows to make them rescind their complaints.
One would think this type of behavior would be outlawed, but this ritual was in its fourth generation—passed down from year-to-year like grandma’s sweet potato pie recipe. The coaches were aware of the hazing, but hid behind the veil of plausible denial. The team captains understood the rules of engagement: stop at the first sign of serious injury and never speak of the matter once they were done. Even the victims of this sadistic brand of peer policing knew that if they ever planned to get any playing time this rite of passage was to remain a secret.
Dillon led the way as they scurried past a few double-wide trailers that served as classrooms, and cut across the grassy quad that separated the gymnasium from the school. Wood followed close enough that he nearly plowed into Dillon’s back when he slowed as they approached the gymnasium entrance.
“Nobody’s in the gym,” Dillon said as he cuffed each side of his face with his hands and peered through the glass pane gymnasium front door. “I don’t see Old Man Joe.”
Old Man Joe was the school’s head Maintenance Engineer. He would sometimes be in the gym sweeping, painting, or doing other tasks that were impossible to get done during normal school hours. Wood stood to the side and waited for a report.
“Yeah,” Dillon said as he tried to open the gymnasium door. “It’s locked. C’mon, let’s go.”
The two boys looked around to make sure they weren’t being watched before entering the fifty yard long alley that ran alongside the gymnasium. An eight foot tall chain link fence shrouded in weeds served as the divider between school property and the rest of the world. The darkness made the alley seem like a tunnel. The sun didn’t reappear until the last ten yards.
“Slow up,” Wood said as he struggled to keep the four bars of soap from falling out of the ripped brown paper bag he held.
“C’mon, slow poke. We don’t have all day.”
“I’m right behind you. This damn bag is ripped.”
“We’re here!” Dillon shouted as he appeared from the alley first. He gave a high-five to the other three team captains: Billy, Luke, and Big Cody—a six-six, three hundred pound, offensive lineman who’d already received scholarship offers from several colleges.
Wood—the only black captain on the team—appeared from the alley wearing a huge smile and the brown bag pressed against his chest. “What’s up fellas?” He looked around. “Where are the—”
The words that would have completed Wood’s sentence were eviscerated by Big Cody’s massive right fist. Wood’s nose and top lip exploded. Blood sprayed like water from a shower head. As the football team’s starting running back, Wood was accustomed to taking hard hits, but he’d never been hit so hard that his eyes rolled backward. To add insult to injury, the punch came from the guy whom he considered to be one of his best friends on the team.
Wood reflexively released the bag of soap and dropped to one knee. Stars danced in front of his face, but eventually he was able to focus long enough to see blood all over his hands and shirt.
Billy pointed at the alley. “Cody, make sure no one is coming!”
“I’m on it,” Cody replied.
Billy moved behind Wood and planted his size eleven shoe between the ambushed boy’s shoulder blades. Wood’s body jerked like he’d been rear-ended in a car crash. Within seconds, his face was kissing the dusty ground.
“Kick’em again, Billy!”
From Wood’s prone position the words seemed to cascade down from the heavens. But God’s no instigator. Wood was cognizant enough to know that the mean spirited command was uttered by someone who walked, talked, and bled just like him. Despite his broken state, he recognized the owner of the nasally voice. It was Dillon Olsen—the boy who’d lured him to the secluded area behind the school’s gymnasium.
“Wh…why…did you hit me?”
The left side of Wood’s face was covered with blood soaked dirt. His vision was blurred, but he could see three sets of tennis shoes and scrawny white legs a few feet away from him.
“Why...why y’all jumping me?” Wood slurred, a string of blood dangling from his bottom lip.
“Lay down!” Billy barked and kicked Wood’s exposed ribs.
Wood unleashed a moan that was so gut wrenching it made big Cody wince. He rolled over on his back and curled into the fetal position.
Billy grabbed a bar of soap and moved closer. “All the girls at this school, and you had to fuck my girlfriend.” Billy knelt next to Wood. “You forgot the rules, boy? You never mess with your teammate’s girlfriend.”
“She…she…said y’all…she said y’all broke up.”
Billy’s face turned hot pink. His nostrils flared and his teeth gritted. The veins in his forearm squirmed like tiny snakes. He’d never lost a girlfriend to anyone—let alone a black boy.
“C’mon, let’s go,” Luke said. “He’s had enough.”
“I ain’t ready yet,” Billy said. He griped the soap and shouted, “I don’t care what she said!”
Wood’s jaw contorted when the punch landed. Dillon, Cody and Luke all flinched. While Wood moaned and writhed in pain, Billy shoved the bar of soap inside of Wood’s mouth.
“Damn,” Luke muttered.
“C’mon, we need to go,” Dillon said.
“You just gon’ leave him here?” asked Luke.
Billy stared at Wood and sneered. “Fuck’em.”
22 Years Later
Wood Mercer squinted and rubbed his weary eyes. Two jobs. Back to back. Sixty hours a week. An avalanche of past due bills kept him working—and wanting to runaway—like a slave.
Visions of a cold beer and a hot shower danced in Wood’s head while his hubcap missing, paint peeling, oft stalling, 2006 Nissan Maxima ambled along a barren stretch of Hwy 380.
“You alright?” asked Ryan, Wood’s nineteen year old son.
“Another day another dollar,” Wood replied lazily. “I didn’t get to take my normal nap in between jobs today because I had to go and vote early.”
“You should’ve got your nap. The election isn’t until next Tuesday.”
“I know, but the company was offering some overtime so I’ll be working a security shift at one of the voting sites on Election Day.” Wood glanced at Ryan. “Don’t forget to go and vote.”
“You’re late old man. I voted last weekend.”
“I hope you voted for Clinton. Donald Trump is riling white America with all of his slogans and code words: Take Our Country Back and Make America Great Again.” Wood sighed and shook his head. “What Trump is really saying is: Make America White Again. Son, if that man gets elected black folk gon’ be one step closer to going back to the Jim Crow era.”
“There you go again with the Malcolm X talk.”
“That’s real talk, son.”
“Yeah, I can feel the racial tension at school. Everybody is on edge about this election. Honestly, I’ll be glad when it’s over.” Ryan could feel the car drift into the other lane. He looked over and noticed his father struggling to keep his eyes open. “You know, you could already be at home relaxing if you’d help me get a car. I could drive myself back and forth to work and school.”
“Not now, son. We’ve already discussed the car issue. You’re the one who insisted on attending college in redneck country.”
“UNT is not in redneck country.”
Wood gritted his teeth and shook his head—his normal response to what he often viewed as Ryan’s naïve, self-absorbed, and often ignorant, Millennial retorts. A witty response danced on his tongue, but before he could let it fly his attention was grabbed by the growling engine of a fast approaching pickup truck.
Perched atop wheels that seemed big enough to crush a small car, the dark colored truck sped past Wood’s Maxima as if it were stationary. Mounted in the bed of the truck was a confederate flag large enough to be hung on top of a building. The symbol of the Confederacy, which served as the driver’s hello to all likeminded individual’s and fuck you to everyone else, flapped in the stiff breeze.
Wood pointed at the truck. “I rest my case.”
Ryan waved dismissively. “There are clowns like that everywhere in the United States.”
“True. But, the college you chose to attend is in a city that’s trapped in the 60’s. And this highway is the main route to that school from our house. Which means, every time you leave home, I’ve gotta worry about some hillbilly harassing you or some cop—who’s cut from the same hillbilly cloth—racial profiling you.”
“Dad, you can’t shelter me from the world.”
“I know that, but you don’t seem to understand that I’ve already got enough to worry about. I don’t need to add your comings and goings to the list. If you’d gone to one of the local schools like UT-Dallas, I’d feel a lot more comfortable and you’d have your car by now.” Wood glanced at Ryan. “If you refuse to change schools and you want a car that bad, you’re going to have to buy it yourself.”
Ryan sucked his teeth. “I don’t make enough money working at Burger King.”
“Get a better job.”
“I can’t search for a better job because I don’t have any transportation.”
“Do your search on-line.”
“Even if I get a better job that way, I’ll still need a car to get back and forth to work.”
“You can use an Uber to get back and forth to work.”
“Dad, do you know how much Uber rides cost?”
“They’re cheaper than a car note.”
“Not when you multiply the cost by ten to twelve times a month. The Uber bill will eat up my paycheck.”
“Sounds like a Catch-22, son. Change schools or deal with me chauffeuring you around. It’s your decision. I can tell you this; I’m not buying you a car as long as you go to UNT.”
“You’re the one that’s losing sleep and getting stressed out because you insist on doing it this way,” Ryan mumbled as he stared out the window.
The subtle disrespect in Ryan’s tone did not go undetected. Wood shook his head in disgust. Exhaustion stifled his desire to respond so instead he unleashed a sigh that sounded like a whistle.
The truth of the matter was that Ryan’s remark was on point. Wood was tired of playing taxi for a son that was taller than him, but his paternal instincts tethered him to his stance on the topic. He’d lived in McKinney for more years than Ryan had been alive and traveled the route to Denton, Texas, more times than he could count. He knew about the rumors of Klu Klux Klan activity in the rural areas of Denton and Collin counties. He’d heard countless stories of dirty cops who preyed on young minorities and had his share of run-ins with many of them himself. There was no way he’d contribute to his son’s vulnerability by supplying him with a vehicle that could make him a bigger target. If being tired while making the nearly two hours round trip every other weekend was the unintended consequence of his firm stance, then so be it.
Not a peep could be heard as they made their way back to McKinney. The silence ushered in a drowsiness that forced Wood to strain to keep his eyelids from slamming shut. Ryan continued to stare out his window at the darkness. His thoughts were on his girlfriend, Brooke, and the different ways he could acquire the car he so desired—including taking Brooke up on her offer to give him enough money for a down payment.
Wood yawned and wiped the moisture forming on his eyelids. They’d just passed the sign that announced the city of McKinney was eight miles away. Just a little bit longer, he thought and turned the radio up louder.
Wood was so focused on trying to stay awake that by the time he noticed the police car parked yards away from one of the few street lights aligning the highway it was too late. Ryan didn’t see the police car either, but he could feel their car decelerating and his father steering the vehicle into the emergency lane. Ryan became more concerned when his father turned the radio off and adjusted his posture.
“What’s wrong?” Ryan asked.
“We’ve got company.”
A flash of blue and red lights lit up the night sky. Ryan flinched. His head swiveled. He pressed the button on the door to lower the window and craned his neck to see if a UFO was hovering above.
“Relax son,” Wood instructed. “Roll up the window.”
Ryan turned and looked out the rear window. “Dad, it’s the police.”
“I know it’s the police.” Wood said calmly. “Turn around. Roll up the window. And keep your hands visible.”
“My hands are visible.”
“Put your hands on your thighs, son.” Wood glanced at the rear view mirror. “I want you to stare straight ahead and don’t speak unless the officer asks you a question.”
“Why is he stopping us? We weren’t speeding.”
“It doesn’t matter, Ryan! Just do as I say.”
Wood looked at his side mirror and could see a silhouette exit the police car. As the menacing figure approached his driver side door it became too large to be monitored via the small mirror. Wood took a deep breath to help summon his composure and readied himself for the one-sided exchange he knew was sure to come.
“Ryan, I want you to open the glove compartment and grab my insurance paper. It should be the paper sitting on top of everything in there.”
Ryan gave his father the insurance paper at the same time the officer tapped the window with the butt of his flashlight.
Wood lowered the window. “Officer, is it necessary to shine that light in my face?”
“License and registration,” the officer replied, treating Wood’s question as if it was rhetorical and didn’t warrant a response.
“Here is my insurance. My driver’s license is in my wallet. Can I get it out of my back pocket?”
“Go ahead,” the officer mumbled. He aimed the light on Wood’s hands.
Wood retrieved his license and gave it to the officer.
“Where you boys goin’?” the officer asked while examining the license and insurance paper.
Did this ma’fucka just call me, boy? “Home,” Wood replied.
Ryan, who to that point kept his focus on the front windshield and the red taillights of the cars whisking past, looked at his father when he heard the disrespectful comment.
As an act of self-preservation—and in an attempt to be passive-aggressive—Wood gripped the steering wheel in an exaggerated manner. The officer shined the light in Wood’s face.
“That’s right. Put’em where I can see’em.”
A whirlwind of emotions made Ryan’s leg shake violently. He looked at his father. You just gon’ let him call you a boy? Why don’t you say something, dad?
Wood was too busy struggling to corral his own emotions to notice the incredulous look on Ryan’s face. Being emasculated—in front of your child—and not having the latitude to rebut can have a paralyzing effect on the strongest of men.
“Wood Mercer,” the officer said in a mocking tone, “we meet again.” The officer crouched so his face could be seen.
“Officer, why’d you stop us?” Ryan blurted out. “We weren’t speeding.”
The officer aimed the blinding beam of light at the young lad’s face.
“I wasn’t talkin’ to you, son. But, since you want to be heard, give me some identification.”
Wood shot Ryan a look that would have scared a grizzly. Ryan reached for his back pocket.
“Slow down, son,” the officer ordered.
Ryan threw up his hands in the surrender gesture. “You told me to give you my identification, officer.”
“I know what I told you,” the officer barked. “Do it slowly. I need to make sure you’re not reaching for a weapon.”
“Why would you think I was—”
“Take your time,” Wood interjected through pressed lips, “and give the man what he asked for.”
Ryan’s hand shook like he was disabling a bomb. Still, he managed to retrieve his wallet without doing anything to give the officer an excuse to shoot.
Wood, a veteran of unwarranted police stops, displayed a demeanor that was the polar opposite of his naïve son’s. Adrenaline coursed through his muscular arms. The frown lines on his forehead were so deep they looked as if they’d been carved into place. His eyes darted from his rear view to side mirrors. There was no one around to witness this stop. Images of the Rodney King video footage flashed across his mind. Even with video and eye witnesses to Rodney being beaten in the street like a dog, the police officers were still acquitted; so it was conceivable that he and his son could suffer the same fate. Feelings of helplessness evoked a rage within him that he hadn’t felt in more than a year—the last time he’d been a victim of racial profiling.
The officer studied Ryan’s identification the same way he’d studied Wood’s. “Alright, boys, I’ll be back in a minute.” The flashlight beam was aimed at Wood’s face again. “If I were you, I’d keep my hands on that steering wheel. You wouldn’t want to give the impression you were about to reach for a weapon.”
Wood watched the officer’s silhouette shrink in the side mirror as he returned to his car. When he saw the police car door open and the officer’s silhouette disappear he addressed his son in a manner that he knew his point wouldn’t be missed.
“Boy, I told you to shut your goddamn mouth and look forward!”
“I just asked him why he stopped us.”
“You shouldn’t have asked that! When I tell you to shut up, I expect you to shut the hell up!”
A chainsaw couldn’t have cut through the tension in the car. Prior to that moment, the most heated exchanges between this father and son duo were rooted in arguments about football games and movies. Wood managed to navigate around many of the challenges that accompanied being a single father. He’d raised Ryan to be studious, respectful, and responsible. It was those foundational traits that helped Ryan avoid many of the societal pitfalls that await young black boys. But the tide was turning.
Wood first noticed the shift in their relationship after Ryan graduated from high school. His once obedient son started to be more vocal about his dislikes. Wood chalked the attitude change up to Ryan’s need for liberation. It was that observation that made it easy for Wood to agree to allow Ryan to live on campus. But the schism was growing. And never had it been more evident than on this muggy night on a stretch of highway that was as isolated as a strand of gray hair in a thick black mane.
Several minutes passed before Ryan said something that would serve as the most evident crack in their once rock solid relationship.
“And don’t call me, boy,” Ryan said.
“What did you say to me?”
“Don’t call me, boy,” Ryan repeated. “Just because you don’t have a problem being called boy doesn’t mean I have to accept it.”
Wood’s eyes widened. His grip on the steering wheel had been vice-like up to that point, but Ryan’s remark was acerbic enough to make him let go.
Wood’s right hand moved with lightening quickness. Ryan’s chest echoed like a base drum being struck by a mallet when his father’s open hand hit it. The thread on the tight fitting t-shirt Ryan wore popped at the seams as Wood tugged. Before Ryan could react, his upper body was pulled over to Wood’s side.
“I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out,” Wood growled. The scent of menthol cigarettes oozed from his mouth and into Ryan’s nostrils. “I swear on your mother’s grave, if you ever talk to me like that again, I’ll beat your ass as if you were some random fool on the street. Do you understand me…boy?”
Ryan was just as strong willed as his father; therefore, an immediate answer to Wood’s question wasn’t forthcoming. Their testosterone fueled stare down didn’t end until they both heard the police officer’s car door slam. Wood released his grip of Ryan’s shirt and resumed his two handed hold of the steering wheel seconds before “Officer Friendly” arrived at his window.
“Alright, boys…y’all both checked out,” the officer said as he handed Wood the insurance paper and both driver’s licenses. “Y’all should be careful. Bad things can happen on these dark roads late at night.”
The flashlight beam prohibited Wood from shooting the type of glare that would get black men hung in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era. Instead, he responded with a slight head nod and rolled up his window.
Wood started the car, waited until the coast was clear, and merged back onto the roadway. Not a word was spoken until they moved from the unincorporated area of the county and into the city of McKinney where Highway 380 was illuminated like the Las Vegas strip.
Ryan’s chest and ego were still smarting from the impact of his father’s blow. Despite being angry that he’d gotten jacked up by his father, he couldn’t shake the need to better understand all that had just transpired. As they turned off of highway and onto the street that led into their subdivision Ryan swallowed his pride and broke the silence.
“What did the cop mean when he said, ‘we meet again’?”
“He’s stopped me before,” Wood replied robotically. “It was back during your freshman year at UNT—along this same highway. That’s why I feel the way I do about you traveling this highway alone. I’m not just pulling shit outta my ass, I’m speaking from experience.”
“Did he give you a ticket the last time he stopped you?”
“No. He let me go the same way he did tonight. Issuing a ticket wasn’t his intent then and it wasn’t his intent tonight. He’s a bully…just like most white cops. A bunch of bullies with badges.”
“You can’t say that about all white cops.”
“I just did,” Wood shot back and smacked the steering wheel, “and since I’ve had more encounters with the police than you have, I think my opinion carries more weight than yours.”
Ryan was smart enough to know that getting into an argument about the integrity of all white police was futile. Instead, he tried to steer the conversation back to what he wanted to know most.
“We still don’t know why he stopped us,” Ryan said while staring out the window. “Why didn’t you insist he tell you? They are supposed to let you know why they pull you over.”
Wood could not understand why a young man as smart as Ryan couldn’t see something that was so obvious. He rubbed his forehead and muttered, “Son, the only thing we’re guilty of is D.W.B.”
“What’s that?” Ryan asked.
Wood never took his eyes off the road as he replied with disgust, “Driving While Black.”
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